Hope Floats

What the annual Christmas Boat Parade says about courage and optimism

Shawn Hubler Add a comment

Newport Harbor never stops being pretty—blue water, white sailboats, bright Christmas lights. The other day, I saw a couple clambering down from a yacht the color of a cream puff.

“Nice boat,” I called, feeling upbeat.

“Wanna buy it cheap?” they replied.

Yes, these are less-than-upbeat times, even in pretty places. One in three California mortgages underwater. Double-dip recession in the air. Rich folks ducking calls from nonprofits and hospitals. Churches and schools desperate for donations.

I had a conversation not long ago with a guy who makes his living dredging private boat slips and he said that, this year, he’d had exactly two jobs. “All. Year,” he repeated for emphasis. The excuses have varied, but after three decades in Orange County, he knows an economic indicator when he sees one: “When the millionaires stop calling, you know people are scared.”

You know where and when you won’t see that fear acknowledged, though? In Newport Harbor in mid-December, when the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce holds its 103rd annual Christmas Boat Parade.

Say what you will about “Newport Beach’s Christmas card to the world,” as the chamber calls it. Tsk at the way it has evolved from a quaint, small-town hoot to a signature O.C. extravaganza. Call it a throwback, or a waste of wattage, or a ritual white-male display of nautical tax write-offs.

Whatever your take, you can’t help but admire its grit, lo, these past several down seasons. Like Santa himself, the boat parade just keeps coming to town, lights ablaze, cocktails and Thurston B. Howell III attire at the ready, Duffy boats swarming like pilot fish around the big, glossy charters.

Never mind that the real estate market is lower than Davy Jones’ locker. Never mind that dream boats all over Orange County are for sale or being repo-ed and stowed in suddenly vacant marinas.

Not even the torrents of rain that assaulted last year’s promenade managed to dampen its can-do spirit. A guy I know who maintains the holiday lights on some of the fancier boats and vacation houses says he has been taking boat parade reservations since late September. You could argue that it’s crazy in this teetering economy to light up your collateral like a Vegas casino. But you could also argue that it’s kind of brave.

Coastal Orange County catches flack for favoring the bright side. When I was a young reporter here, its reflexive optimism seemed shallow and false. No matter whom you asked, life was always great, now was always the time to buy, and everybody was always just back from two weeks in Maui. Everything seemed so relentlessly upbeat and pretty that it freaked me out.

Live through a recession or two, though, and scary takes on a whole new meaning. As many here can tell you, it’s easy to scoff at positive thinking if you’ve never been up at 3 a.m., wondering where your next mortgage payment is coming from. Look your children in the eye sometime as they ask, “Are we poor now?”—then decide whether denial is just a river in Egypt. Optimism has never been as valuable as it is now.

So, good for the boat parades, in Newport and elsewhere. Good for those who keep rowing when the winter sets in and the prospects are flat.

Crank up the lights. Straighten that ascot. Raise a glass to all that is upbeat and pretty. Here’s to fear taking a holiday. Here’s to a life as light as a cream puff. People don’t realize until the chips are down how much courage it takes just to keep being determined. Are we poor now? Don’t answer that.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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